No Excuses: It’s Time for More Female Protagonists

A black-and-white photograph and portrait of a dark-haired woman taken in 1944.

Violette Szabo, a secret agent in WWII.

If the game design of 2009’s Velvet Assassin were half as interesting as its history, I might be able to bring myself to play beyond the first mission. Velvet Assassin is loosely based on the story of Violette Szabo, a Parisian-born, British-educated woman who enlisted in the elite Special Operations Executive after her husband died in the Second World War. Although the game takes substantial liberties with the facts of Szabo’s life, the premise alone makes for a compelling game pitch: still grieving the loss of her husband, Violette devotes herself to sabotage and subterfuge behind enemy lines.

Velvet Assassin wastes this rich history on a clunky, tired game. The Metacritic average for the game settled at a failing grade: fifty-six out of one hundred. But, having played and enjoyed some poorly-reviewed games, I decided to take my chances. By the end of the first full mission, I was ready to watch the rest of the game on YouTube. Suffice it to say that Velvet Assassin is a frustrating and thoroughly uninteresting experience.

But this game’s story deserves “AAA” treatment. Consider all that it has to offer from a back-of-the-box perspective: a compelling female character with strong motivations, a well-known historical setting (World War II), and a delicious mixture of stealth, deception and demolition. Despite this strong premise, Velvet Assassin didn’t get picked up by Electronic Arts or Activision or Ubisoft; it was produced by a team of “about 35 people” (according to a developer interview) and published by Southpeak Interactive. With those financial limitations in mind, it’s a miracle that Velvet Assassin was playable, even if it turned out to be a mediocre game.

The conversation surrounding female lead protagonists in games is louder than ever. When Grand Theft Auto V was announced, podcasters and journalists speculated about the possibility (and the viability) of a female protagonist in a Rockstar game. Could she kill? Could she fit in a GTA story? The inclusion of playable female characters in Gears of War 3 left fans asking if the Gears franchise would ever have a female character in the starring role. And Mitch Dyer at IGN, presumably prompted by the portrayal of Aveline de Grandpré in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, asked Ubisoft if there would ever be a female protagonist in a main entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

It is astonishing that, in 2013, the inclusion of female leads in mainstream video game releases is still a faraway dream. Rare games like Tomb Raider and Bayonetta bet big on their female leads, but the discussion surrounding them rarely moves beyond the (de)sexualization of their protagonists. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V will have three protagonists, all of them men. Adding to the trend, Chris Perna from Epic said that it would be “tough to justify” having a female lead in a Gears game given sales expectations. And Ashraf Ismail from Ubisoft told IGN that, when designing the lead character for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, his team “actually never thought, ‘could this be a woman?’”

A promotional image for Grand Theft Auto V. Three men are walking away from a burning van in a flood control. The man on the left is holding an assault rifle. Two of them are carrying bags full of money.

The three male protagonists of Grand Theft Auto V.

We’re not just lagging behind as a narrative medium, we’re stubbornly stagnant and we’re risking complete cultural irrelevance as a result. Imagine the absurdity of a novelist saying that it would be “tough to justify” telling a story through the eyes of a female character. And where would film be as a medium if producers never even considered casting female leads? Alien was made in 1979 and went on to earn back ten times its budget at the box office. But, in 2013, video game developers are still trotting out the same tired excuses for failing to change the representational landscape of the medium.

With respect to games set in historical contexts, we can’t rely on the excuse that women did not participate meaningfully in major world events. When he was questioned about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Ashraf Ismail relayed that, while “there were a few famous women pirates,” the phenomenon “wasn’t common” and they “didn’t want that element to be a detail people got stuck in.” But good historical fiction is precisely about highlighting the uncommon, the exceptional and the rare. If a team of thirty-five people can locate and research Violette Szabo for Velvet Assassin, then surely the veritable army of developers at Ubisoft can find an interesting female pirate for their game (someone like Anne Bonny or, if they could sensitively handle a nuanced gender presentation, someone like Mary Read).

A black-and-white drawing of a female pirate. She is standing on the beach, holding a smoking gun in her outstretched hand. In the background, galleons are anchored in the bay.

A drawing of Anne Bonny, an Irish pirate.

It’s also becoming increasingly harder to believe that a publisher like Epic Games could not market a successful game with a female star. Gears of War 3 sold over three million copies in its first week. And, according to VGChartz, the franchise has shipped over seventeen million units to date. Gears is one of the most popular and beloved series of games for an entire generation of players. Presuming that the quality of the Gears games remains constant, does Epic really believe that there are players out there who would refuse to buy the next entry in the series if a bulky, rectangular woman were on the front of the box instead of a bulky, rectangular man? And, if so, are those players worth holding onto? If anyone is poised to forge new ground for the mainstream of our medium in a forceful and highly visible way, it’s a powerhouse studio like Epic.

But as long as large publishers continue to craft characters based on the whims of the most narrow-minded and reactionary portion of their playerbase, the medium at large is going nowhere. The best we can hope for, under the current way of doing business, is a big-budget game like Spec Ops: The Line which at least attempts to approach the subject of war in a nuanced way. If mainstream developers finally manage, after all these years, to produce the perfect masculine war story, what will be left for them to create? What large swaths of human history and experience are being left behind?

I have my own faraway dream for the portrayal of women in video games. If mainstream games can start to explore some new mechanical territory (something besides object collision which, as Ian Bogost pointed out to me on a panel we were on together last year, is the dominant mechanic of virtually all mainstream games), then they might be able to tell stories about spheres of human life that aren’t wartime violence. Indie game developers have been thriving in this experimental space with incredibly scarce resources.

A screenshot from the game Pong. A dotted line down the middle divides the screen into two. Small paddles on the extreme left and right are controlled by the player. The score at the top reads 0 to 1.

Like Pong, most mainstream games are still about object collision.

But imagine what would happen if mainstream developers started to explore new frontiers beyond bullets hitting people. In this hypothetical new era of game development, there would be even more female historical figures available for developers to incorporate into their lavish fictions. There would be more games like L.A. Noire, in which conversations can be just as suspenseful as shootouts. The experiences of women and other underrepresented groups of people could finally be incorporated into the medium in a meaningful way. We could produce serious cultural texts that explore the diversity of human experience, instead of rehashing Apocalypse Nowad infinitum.

But, for now, I would settle for a lady pirate in Assassin’s Creed and a female Gear on the front of the box. It’s time for mainstream developers to stop making excuses and start having some aspirations. We pride ourselves on being a young but fast-moving medium. Let’s kick it into high gear and give Lara Croft some company in the world of leading ladies.

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is a contributor for The Daily Beast and her opinion pieces appear regularly at The Daily Dot. Her work has also appeared on Salon, Huffington Post, The Advocate, Mic, Kinsey Confidential, Jacobin, and in Adult Magazine. Samantha is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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67 Responses to No Excuses: It’s Time for More Female Protagonists

  1. Andrea Elizabeth says:

    This is every thought I’ve had since Assassin’s Creed IV was announced and then some. Great commentary.

    • PandoraEve says:

      Same here. I was pretty disappointed when I found out that the pirate would be male, especially after what I’ve heard about Liberation. Besides, as was mentioned, history tends to be way more interesting than that, especially in the times usually thought of as most restrictive. Most of the women of the past couldn’t afford to just sit around and do housework all day. They worked, they fought, and just plain did a lot of things that might not even be acceptable today. (Like that one French lady who slept with everyone, stabbed people in the face, and briefly became a nun just so she could sleep with one of the converts. Could we get a game about her, please?)

  2. To add one thing that has always bugged me about the Assassin’s Creed examples is that the titular creed makes the case for ignoring the same social convection that people say the games must follow.

    For those that have not played the game. The creed’s maxim is “nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Which was explained to meaning: “To say that nothing is true, is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”

    The creed as well as the game entire narrative structure asks us to question the same historical “truths” people use to justify the lack of a female protagonist. The cognitive dissonance required to want a game that question societies’ structures and simultaneous follows societies’ structures… it gives me a headache. Do they realize they are in effect doing what the Templars (games’ enemies) who wrote the history books to suit their ends would want? How are people not seeing that confronting gender issues would actually fit logically with the games themes? Sexism and erasure of powerful women from history being the work of the Templars would actually fit nicely with thing such as modern capitalism/entertainment/politics etc. being the work of the Templars. I seriously considered just responding to every post defending the lack of a main female character by posting the creed and seeing if anyone gets the point.

    But in the real world women…
    “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”
    But history…
    “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”
    But women in that society…
    “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”
    But a female couldn’t…
    “Nothing is true, everything is permitted!”

    There is no truly no excuse for “the but it has to be a man” arguments around this game…“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”.

    • That’s a really interesting point about how the conventionality of the protagonists actually work against the radical, question everything message of the game. They get to have their cake and eat it too.

      • prezzey says:

        yes… I only played AC1 for longer than five minutes, so I can’t comment on the other games, but it seemed to me they were trying their hardest to make Altair as non-Middle-Eastern-looking as possible. Now, I’m also someone who’s as non-Middle-Eastern-looking as possible, so I know not everyone looks the part ;] (I’m mixed ethnicity though), but… I don’t think that’s what they were going for at all, they just wanted to have a whitedude protagonist.

    • prezzey says:

      Great point!! Also matches your username well ;]

    • Feliza says:

      This is a beautiful comment, and very thought-provoking. I especially love your idea that systemized sexism could actually become (or even already be part of) the logic of the game. The way the games are handled, though, seem to fit the idea that the “shepherds of our own civilization” are most certainly lacking female input and perspective.

      It would also be interesting if systemized racism/whitewashing also existed within the logic of the game. But as prezzey mentioned below, even the protagonist is incredibly whitewashed. I’ve only played AC Bloodlines, but I was surprised to hear his name pronounced in the game. Based on the Romanized spelling, I expected it to sound like “Altar,” except rhyming with “hair.” I loved that his name could have been more accurately Romanized as al-Tayar or Al Tayer, which for me would have given more credibility to the game.

      • prezzey says:

        could have been more accurately Romanized as al-Tayar or Al Tayer

        Al-Tayer is something like الطاير isn’t it? While Altair’s name is from the star’s name الطائر. Not sure, I get by in other Semitic languages but not Arabic (which is why I’m asking).

    • Jellyfish says:

      I like the way you’ve put this. I’ve also wondered the same thing myself. In the first Assassin’s Creed Desmond is given a long lecture on not believing everything he reads in history books by his Templar captive Dr. Vidic. It’s so disappointing that the developers have wasted opportunities to broaden this critique where a lot of subjects, including gender, are concerned.

  3. thomas says:

    My big female kinda-protagonist-I-guess that I’m keeping my eye on is Heart of the Swarm’s Kerrigan. She’s an odd blend of damsel-in-distress and embodiment-of-evil for most of the previous games, but HotS will have you playing as her and humanizing her at the same time…

    Not saying it’ll necessarily be handled well, but I have a glimmer of hope that amid the space-cowboy machismo of Starcraft she can hold her own.

    • Yes, 2013 is shaping up to be a better year so far. I thought the redone Lara Croft was not perfect, but a step in the right direction nonetheless.

      I’m betting, though, that all the announcements at E3 will feature the same white, 30-year old guy with brown hair in every game. The next-generation games that we already know about all seem to feature some variation on this tired theme: Watch Dogs, Star Wars 1313.

      • prezzey says:

        Remember Me? (I was sure that was next-gen but suddenly I’m not sure, Wikipedia lists it as PS3/X360…)

        • It will probably be announced for next-gen consoles once they’re announced. I’m also forgetting about that David Cage / Ellen Page project (Beyond: Two Souls).

          Also, the box art for Remember Me is your typical “I’m looking back at you over my shoulder while you look at my butt” pose.

          • prezzey says:

            agreed.

            (also, if that Quantic Dream game ends up riffing on the tired mind rape tropes I am going to be extremely angry. IDK but sort of got that impression from the promo materials, then switched to avoid mode? Will see when it comes out…)

      • DM Osbon says:

        I’d like to know where you thought the rebooted Tomb Raider didn’t succeed. As a male gamer I love being given the chance to play a female lead. Enjoyed every minute.

        • I actually really enjoyed the rebooted Tomb Raider and, while I think the visual teams were still a little too eager to show us Lara’s cleavage (a tank top on a freezing mountaintop, really?!), I think it’s a strong step in the right direction. Glad you enjoyed it too!

          • Jonathan says:

            I’m playing it at the moment and her lack of warm clothing is really bugging me. It isn’t even mentioned.

            • Tess says:

              Heh, I don’t know, I thought it was mentioned but in a creepy way. Like, if you leave her standing on the mountaintop for a long time (I was taking screencaps) she starts hugging herself and shivering.

            • prezzey says:

              Haven’t played it yet but my brother says her clothing also gets wet…? IIRC?

    • MariEllen says:

      I just started HotS (3 missions in I think) and so far they have made a very dynamic character. She has shown a wide range of emotions so far, love, hate, contempt, sadness, determination.

      I hope they continue this throughout the game and don’t just change her into a bitter, revenge driven sexy cardboard cutout of a character… come one blizzard! you can do eet!

  4. BlameTheGamer says:

    While I agree with the sentiment, I’d say you ignored one of the biggest excuses that nobody wants to talk about.

    The players.

    Most of the people I know wouldn’t be able to fathom the idea of playing the latest triple-A shooter as a woman. Their reasoning would be that they don’t feel as manly if the ass kicking is done by somebody of the opposite gender.

    Now, this might be a bad example, but I liked being able to play a female in Saints Row: the Third. It was fun to be able to have a character in “appropriate” female clothing (e.g. high heels, skirts, etc.) climb into a tank and run over hummers and muscle cars or literally just punch everybody. I was really excited about the rumor that the Assassin’s Creed III protagonist would be female. It opened up the possibility of new character themes.

    But the triple-A games industry is not about taking risks. It’s about sticking to a tired formula to get money. Keep in mind the majority who plays games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty are males aged around 15-25. It’s all about pandering to them. Making a character who doesn’t “get all of the b*****s” has less appeal than one that does. And the players don’t ask for anything more than the latest drivel that the high end developers have drooled out on an inflated budget. Nothing will change unless the players can be convinced that playing a female character is still fun and engaging.

    • I agree gamer culture is a big problem and looking a bit more broadly if I had a nickel for every-time time someone said games (as in the entire medium) should just be pure escapism and have no political themes… I’d be lugging a very large bag towards my local coinstar machine right now. Female character in effect often face a double Jeopardy in this regards they get attacked for being female but they are also attacked because their inclusion is seem as political and God forbid that anything in an entire medium be political.

      There is a bizarre sense of entitlement in the game community, no one could say keep politics out of all movies, music, or books yet entitled gamers often do say that about games. No one could say books are any one thing, yet frequently people saying things like games are about just about (insert escapism/shooting/whatever they like/feel entitled to here.) In effect, many gamers treat games less like a medium and more like a genre. A genre has rules in which statements like “it should be escapist” could make sense.

      It is rather frightening but in a sense, many gamers are not just holding back the medium they are trying to make it not even function as a medium for expression, but rather to exist purely as a synonym for a genre (white-heterosexual-male escapist fantasy).

      • PandoraEve says:

        Of course, this is in a lot of ways really baffling, because then you’re assuming that the “default” isn’t political, when it really is. And, besides, what about when a game DOES have political themes? Do they suddenly not count until they’re about gender or sexual orientation?
        Secondly, isn’t treating games only as escapism kinda shooting themselves in the foot? I remember reading a quote about fantasy novels recently, and it’s applicable here. If they’re merely escapism, then they don’t have all that much to say. But aren’t these the same people who were complaining about how some people say games aren’t art? You can’t have it both ways, guys.

    • Feliza says:

      You’re assuming that females 15-25 aren’t interested in games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. I myself am a female in that age range who would love to play Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty – except I’ve started one AC game (Bloodlines) and realized there’s basically one female character who speaks. Everyone in these games are male. And why should I play a game where there isn’t even the option to customize something as simple as gender?

      Big-name companies producing video games could seriously expand their audience by including more playable female characters. Consider what you’re saying: “They don’t feel as manly if the ass kicking is done by somebody of the opposite gender.” How, then, does a video game attract female players or non-white players when the ass-kicking is all done by white guys? That’s why I rarely play video games. It’s hard to relate to a game when all of the protagonists are exactly the same.

      • Ardyvee says:

        Not to dismiss your and parent’s comment points, because they are truthful. But I’ve always wanted to ask this question: does it matter that much the ethnicity or the gender of the protagonist?

        In a game like AC, I usually do this: play the campaign, enjoy it like a good movie, and then I get to the ‘game’. Which is roam around trying to kill people interesting ways such as with their own weapons, or maybe not kill them at all but just knock them out. Or what have you. After reaching the end of the beautiful campaign, I stopped caring about any characters and proceeded to use them as nothing more than the presence in the game-world that allowed me to face a challenge.

        In a game like SR3 the things are difference since I have the personality of the character provided by the voice, but it ends up being the same thing (I do appreciate the ability to choose what I like, but that’s besides the point). I would have still played it if there was no choice since the game itself was fun (trying to steal those cars… so hard… :D).

        So, then, does the characters matter that much to the point of not enjoying a [good] game?

        • Hi Ardyvee, I can only speak for myself and say that, yes, I admit that I am still able to enjoy games with white, male, 20-something protagonists on a mechanical level. But, after 10 years of gaming, the narratives and the homogeneity of the characters are beginning to grate. Furthermore, if game developers want the medium to be taken seriously as a cultural form or as a mode of representation, they have to start branching out. If what you want out of games is mechanical fun, that can happen and I don’t want that fun to go away. But I also think games can be so much more than that.

    • prezzey says:

      Most of the people I know wouldn’t be able to fathom the idea of playing the latest triple-A shooter as a woman. Their reasoning would be that they don’t feel as manly if the ass kicking is done by somebody of the opposite gender.

      I see quite an amount of men play women characters in Mass Effect multiplayer, I assume it’s because having both male and female versions of the core human classes allows you to have two different builds for the same class. Having two builds without needing to spend points on respec-ing your class seems to add enough to the game that even men do not seem very bothered by playing as women.

      That might be an interesting example of a game mechanic getting men to play as women. (Also, some of the DLC classes are single-gender – presumably for financial reasons :'[ – but they cut across stereotypes, eg the Turian Vanguard is a woman. If you’re not familiar with the series, Vanguards are CQC specialists and usually require an aggressive playstyle.)

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  6. Ricalia says:

    Tying into this a little, I’d like to see more games where, when given the option to choose to play as either a female or male character, the female character is ultimately the canon choice.

    • I absolutely agree. Did you know that Mass Effect 3 had female Shepard printed on the back of the cover art so you could have the box reflect your choice? This was a small but meaningful gesture.

      It’s also sad that, when you subtract the games where you can play as a male OR a female character, just how few games (at least mainstream Western games) actually have authored female protagonists.

  7. Christina Nordlander says:

    I agree with this article 100%. I wish I could shout this from the rooftops until I’m hoarse.

  8. Alex says:

    More women but forget including anyone else. None of those games have main black protagonists either but no mention of that. Funny how your equality still excludes me.

    • I am also appalled at the lack of black protagonists (I counted 2 in major Western releases from 2010-2012: The Walking Dead and Prototype 2) and I see the push for female protagonists and for black protagonists as complementary (and often intersecting!) fights. For instance, I’m hoping for a day when non-white women will be more than just side players in game narratives.

      The focus of this article was on women because it’s Women’s History Month. I agree that the article would have been stronger if it had mentioned other disparities in representation, or if it had brought the experiences of non-white women to the forefront. I want to thank you for bringing issues of race into this discussion. I want, just as badly as you, to see anyone but another “generic white man in his early 30s with brown hair and some scruffy facial hair” receive top billing.

      • Drakhoran says:

        Way back in 1999 Eidos published the game Urban Chaos where you got to play as the black female police officer D’arci Stern. There hasn’t been many similar characters in gaming.

  9. Sonja says:

    I completely agree. Although I feel like most of the female characters we see today are all very busty women who often wear some pretty skimpy clothing, what I would love to see is a game with a badass female protagonist who maybe isn’t so perfect and dresses just the same as the male characters (well obviously not exactly the same but not drastically different or skimpy). It’s nice to see more games that are transitioning into this! Ellie from Borderlands fan anyone???

  10. Jonathan says:

    I’ve always thought that the Assassin’s Creed series had the potential to take a really interesting look at gender in history and in games by making a male protagonist relive the memories of a female ancestor.

    • Patrick says:

      There’s a scene in Assassin’s Creed II (or possibly Brotherhood) where Desmond is flashing back to being Altair when he sleeps with a woman. His perspective then stays with her rather than going back to Altair with the strong implication that this is because Altair had just conceived an heir. It’s incredibly stupid considering that by definition, the mother is just as much Desmond’s ancestor as Altair is.

    • Feliza says:

      If there was a female ancestor for Assassin’s Creed, I would buy a major gaming console just to play it, pre-order it, buy basically all the merchandise, and play until my eyeballs fell out. I’m so tired of looking for a game where I could play someone I even VAGUELY relate to, maybe someone who represents 50 percent of the population, who doesn’t have her assets displayed all over the place.

  11. Shawge says:

    Bioware has done a really good job of this. The types of games they make (Dragon Age and Mass Effect) give them an advantage of course. I enjoy games with playable female characters, I generally do a play through of each for the games I mentioned. I had a hard time taking the recent Tomb Raider release serious though, with the complete absence of female enemies.

    • Tess says:

      Re: Tomb Raider, I think the (kind of ooky) implication is that all of the women on the island were sacrificed in the fire ritual. You do see other women in those weird altar places that show up in the tombs sometimes.

      • Jellyfish says:

        Yes, this is correct. Not to get into spoilers but the women were sacrificed for rituals which are a major plot point in the story. I got the impression that a majority of the vessels that crashed onto the island were military and cargo ships which would have had more men than women on them to begin with. Also technically the big bad of the story is a woman (though we don’t really get to fight or talk with her unfortunately). Despite this the game still comfortably passes the Bechdel test.

        That said I hope the next game doesn’t shy away from female enemies. The original Tomb Raider had a great female antagonist (Natla) and there’s no reason Lara couldn’t face down other female adventurers or female mercinaries.

  12. Arthur De Martino says:

    “But this game’s story deserves “AAA” treatment”

    Really? Why?
    “Triple A gaming” is currently on decline, filled to the brim with games that want a very particular audience while trying to keep things as interesting as possible with the least amount of effort in it.

    I could list game upon game with interesting female protagonists, some of them are in fact dominated with only female characters.

    None of them are triple A. Nor they need to be.

    This entire fascination with triple A gaming in 2013 is weird to me. There’s this huge world of games with interesting and unique protagonists, game styles, storylines, concepts and none of it it’s happening on the triple A format.

    • Arthur, I spend a lot of time playing precisely the independent games you describe in your comment. Like you, I’m impressed by the array of characters, aesthetics and narratives available in that sphere.

      I’m not ready, however, to totally abandon the allure of a fully-realized 3D world with professional voice-acting and all those other bells and whistles that come with a “AAA” game budget.

      I don’t think this is a zero-sum game. I think we can have both. I think it’s time for more female protagonists in BOTH mainstream and independent games. Just because the independent scene is doing well doesn’t mean I’m ready to let the big publishers off the hook.

      • Eric Müller says:

        I didn’t read his thought to be that it’d be “letting big publishers off the hook” by dismissing AAA titles but rather the thought that the current AAA model is unsustainable to begin with… with games like Dead Space 3 that needed 5 million in sales just to break even.

        It does seem, to me, much likelier that the currently more nimble indie game developers will be the ones shaping the future of video games. I don’t think the present kind of AAA title will be with us much longer as fewer and fewer publishers and developers can even afford to make them unless we see a dramatic shift on how the games are made and marketed.

  13. Rakaziel says:

    I guess one aspect the AAA publishers are also afraid of is how it could backfire. If they just add a sexbot it would satisfy their ‘target audience’ but get complaints from everone else – if they add enough muscles and character to create a credible female badass who also can say ‘No’ at times they are afraid to lose their ‘target audience’ because of their fragile, fragile egos. The fight for entitlement to escapism by that ‘target audience’ is in fact a result of that fragile ego, which in turn may, at least to a degree, be a result of the constant advertisements saying “To be a Real Man ™ you have to buy this, this and this, behave this and this way, and if not, you are no Real Man ™”.

    Aside from the whole ‘target audience’ issue, and I do not mean to detract any of that, the entire system is broken, simply because we, as in the western civilisation, have let capitalism into areas of self-perception it should never have been allowed in.

  14. Unfriendlyghost says:

    One piece of good news: Supergiant Games (developers of Bastion) today announced their new game, Transistor and it has a female protagonist.

    Lovely reveal trailer here: http://supergiantgames.com/?p=1816

  15. Jake says:

    Even though the series doesn’t seem to be a fan-favorite, I think the Final Fantasy XIII series is the direction female protagonists need to be taken to. Square Enix has so much faith in Lightning that they’re giving her a third game and to top it off – I don’t think they sexualize at all. Her whole story is centered about the love between her and her sister and her wanting to save the world/time and make it a better place. There’s no romantic interest for her, because Square Enix knows that a female lead doesn’t need that in order to validate herself (unlike a majority of female game characters out there). I’m excited to play the new Tomb Raider, but I think Lightning is the direction I want to see my female leads take.

    • prezzey says:

      I like FFXIII and FFXIII-2 (gasp!) but um Serah REALLY got on my nerves in FFXIII-2 with her constant “protect me, I’m so weak and vulnerable” lines. Especially since she wasn’t weak at all… I kept on waiting for this to be lampshaded but it didn’t really happen. (Right now I’m playing Tales of Graces f and this DOES happen in Tales of Graces f. Trying to keep it vague bc spoilers: Protagonistboy goes like “I’m strong, I’ll protect you, little girl” – turns out the little girl is an order of magnitude stronger than him, at the very least.)

  16. Jellyfish says:

    The developer’s shrugging dismissal of the idea of a female protagonist is also pretty shocking when you consider that the main AC games have all had female characters capable and involved enough in the mythos that they could’ve been the leads of their own games:

    AC1 has Maria Thorpe the female templar agent who later joins and helps lead the assassins and has children with Altair (making her Desmond’s ancestor). She was a 12th century noblewoman who left behind an unhappy arranged marriage, disguised herself as a man and joined the crusades where she eventually earned a high rank in the order as one of Robert de Sable’s top lieutenants.

    AC2 has Rosa (a prominent member of the Venetian thieves guild who teaches Ezio an improved climbing technique), and Paola and Teodora (members of the assassins guild who lead a wide network of courtesan spies). We also have Caterina Sforza (’nuff said) :)

    AC Brotherhood and Revelations both have female assassins and female Templar agents/targets. These games see Ezio’s sister Claudia become an assassin in her own right and be admitted into the order by Ezio. Claudia fights in the battle to take Rome from the Borgia. In Revelations Ezio writes to her often and in one letter tells her that if he should die she should continue his work rather than seek revenge.

    While all of these women’s stories usually worked to compliment the male leads, these were still interesting and proactive women who didn’t shy away from their ambitions and beliefs despite the restrictions placed on them due to gender and/or class. Even putting aside the excellent AC Liberation for a moment, I don’t see how it’s such an unreasonable intellectual leap to get from supporting characters like Maria or Claudia to a lead female assassin in the main series. I don’t understand how anyone who has played the previous main games would be so confused by the idea of a female pirate in this franchise. Is it perhaps down to the idea that characters like this are acceptable when they’re in the background- as love interests, eye candy and relatives of the main male character but not so much when they’re front and centre in the story?

    On up and coming games with decent playable female leads I’d like to point towards a game called Fuse, which comes out this Spring/early Summer. It might be of interest to anyone who plays shooters and is looking for a bit more character diversity.
    http://www.insomniacgames.com/games/fuse/
    It’s for 1 to 4 players. You play as a team of four characters- two women and two men who are hired to infiltrate a top secret lab. All four have their own skills and the player can switch between them at will. Teamwork is a vital aspect of the gameplay. Also the two female protagonists are voiced by Ali Hillis and Jennifer Hale (aka the voices of Liara and female Shepard in Mass Effect) which is a major plus for me.

    • Rakaziel says:

      It looks like a good game and the story ist intriguing, but somehow the role destribution ist still pretty standard – women as thieves and healers and men as snipers and tanks. I would like to see a female tank for a change.

      • Stace says:

        Naya is an assassin, not a thief. And one of Izzy’s weapons appears to be a sniper rifle. I wouldn’t classify her as a simple healer.

      • Jellyfish says:

        Fair enough. Then play Project Eden (PS2 and PC).

  17. Cluisanna says:

    In most games it would absolutely be possible to give the option to play a female or a male character (and while you’re at it, also a black, white, Asian, etc. character) – and I don’t understand why this isn’t a possibility in most games. It seems to be the perfect solution, and you can’t tell me it’s too expensive or something, when Mass Effect, TES and almost all MMORPGs have that option without lacking in content. It just isn’t a priority especially in FPS because male is seen as the default.

    • Rakaziel says:

      I agree with you. Graphics wise it would be no big thing (different skin tones and racial morphs so that not everyone looks like a recolored caucasian included), problem is just, as you said, in the priorities – in the time it takes to build a second protagonist of a different gender (regardless of whether the first protagonist is male or female) they can alternately build more enemies and armor for the first protagonist (which all still could be fixed by morphs if they design no extra skimpy armor), and depending on how they go at it save a bit of money by recycling more animations (most enemies are male and use the protagonist’s animations, then again animations can be adapted to different body types with algorithms) and hiring less voice actors.

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  20. Nice article, thanks.

    I’m glad you picked out Alien as a groundbreaking moment for female protagonists in Hollywood cinema. If we take triple-A titles as gaming’s Hollywood, then we’re still definitely waiting for our first Ellen Ripley. While it sounds like they’ve done a great job reinventing Lara in Tomb Raider (haven’t played it yet but read a lot about it), the name “Lara Croft” still carries the tiny-waisted connotation of those earlier titles.

    However – and maybe I’m being too hopeful here in my analogy-stretching – hopefully when our “Ripley” does arrive on the scene, it will make games studios realise, as you say, that players WON’T abandon a series simply because the protagonist is no longer male. And, as a result, we’ll see lots more female leads in games.

    While the importance of equality goes without saying, as a male gamer I would love to play a game centred around a female lead with the narrative complexity of say Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs (off the top of my head), purely to see how that story would spin out and how it would be affected by the character’s gender. At the moment we’re pretty much restricted to male leads in games which means we are striving for nuances between tough-guy Wei Shen and, say, tough-guy Nico Bellic (I’m generalising here, of course).

    • Jonathan says:

      Does being physically attractive invalidate a character’s status as a female role model? Sure, Lara was designed to appeal to the male gaze, but she’s still a gaming icon, beloved of countless gamers across the globe. I’m sure all of the women who consider her an inspirational figure will be overjoyed to know that she doesn’t count because she was conceived with cartoonish proportions. It just smacks of the whole “real women have curves” rubbish.

      • Of course not – I was simply citing Lara Croft as an obvious example of a female lead who has – in the past – been characterized by her appearance as much as her, well, character.

        I wasn’t talking about role models specifically by the way, just female leads.

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